Fort Collins’ identity crisis: Is it Old Town or Downtown?

That place at the center of our town, you know, the one with the 100-year-old facades, the dreamlike Christmas lights, and the Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon energy you can practically feel on your skin – what’s that place called again? Is it Downtown? Old Town? Does it matter?

Pat Ferrier’s informative article in last Friday’s Coloradoan, “Why Not Fort Collins?” explored factors for businesses choosing to locate here, such as available industrial space, transportation options, labor pool and more. She also proves her statement “the development game is a competitive, winner-take-all business.”

I recently found myself singing our town’s praises in recruiting a future employee to choose “the Fort” over another Fort – Fort Myers, Fla. A powerful weapon in my pitch: Old Town, our crown jewel. There’s no place like it in terms of beauty, access, diversity and vibrancy.

Old Town ought to be front-and-center in how we promote Fort Collins to businesses, tourists and future residents.

Then why can’t we get the name right? Instead, we speak from both sides of our mouths. Pretend you stood on a street corner, grabbed each person walking by, poked your finger on a city map somewhere near the intersection of College and Mountain and asked, “What’s that area called?” Ninety-nine percent of people would reply “Old Town.” The one percent responding “Downtown” are likely affiliated with our town center’s caretaker institutions, including the Downtown Business Association and the Downtown Development Authority, both responsible for much of Old Town’s greatness, in spite of the misnomers in their letterheads.

Does naming matter? Yes. Marketing 101 teaches that you must clearly name your brand and mustn’t confuse your audience. We’re falling short on both counts. Fourteen businesses have “Old Town” in their names and only one contains “Downtown.” So why does the sign along Interstate-25 point to “Downtown”? To confuse visitors even further, the sign literally says “Historic Downtown,” as if perhaps there are two older districts in Fort Collins.

There’s a reason we’re stuck with two names. Some years ago, a DBA staffer told me that many members felt “Old Town” was most commonly associated with Old Town Square, and that businesses located the furthest from the Square would feel marginalized if the association named itself after Old Town. Thus, “Downtown” was chosen, the staffer explained, to describe a larger geographic area within which lays Old Town (and then within that, Old Town Square. Ugh.)

Unfortunately, the rest of the world never understood these convoluted distinctions. Instead, we have confusion. Wikitravel says, “Old Town is the downtown area of the city.” Wikipedia lumps everything together; a gorgeous photo of Linden Street is captioned “Downtown ‘Old Town’ Fort Collins.” Google Maps gets it all wrong, excluding both Linden Street and Old Town Square from its sky view of Old Town. The Fort Collins Conventions & Visitors Bureau website defines Old Town as a “well-preserved downtown district.”

Perhaps Downtown and Old Town are one in the same. If so, according to Marketing 101, they/it ought to have one name. Then which one? The answer lies with Marketing 101’s biggest lesson of all: set yourself apart from the competition. Every town has a downtown, but only Fort Collins has Old Town. And when you write it, don’t forget to capitalize.

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